All the way back in 2014, Khalil Mack was a pressure-generating factory but registered just four sacks in his debut NFL season. Those rookie-year pressures indicated the sacks would, in time, come. And they did. In Year 2, he led the NFL in quarterback takedowns with 15.5, but it was the following year when Mack put it all together en route to winning NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
Mack's sack total dipped to 11 in his third season, yet he recorded and astronomical 98 quarterback pressures with 14 tackles for loss and five forced fumbles on an upstart Raiders team that went 12-4. Why am I reciting Mack's early-career accolades? Because Panthers edge rusher Brian Burns is on an eerily similar arc. And the monstrous Mack-type Year 3 is on the horizon.
Burns had eight sacks as a rookie, saw his sack total jump in a highly productive Year 2 and plays with the complete arsenal needed to take a seismic step forward on an upstart club in his third professional season.
Check the ascension in pressures and pressure-creation rate for both edge rushers early in their NFL careers.
|Rookie Year Pressures||Rookie Year Pressure-Creation %||Year 2 Pressures||Year 2 Pressure-Creation %||Year 3 Pressures||Year 3 Pressure-Creation %|
At nearly 6-foot-5 and 249 pounds -- weight he bulked up to after his college career -- Burns proved the elite explosion and burst everyone noticed on the field at Florida State was no fluke. He tested phenomenally at the 2019 combine.
How good Burns would become in the NFL would hinge upon his power through contact. Could he bull rush his way to the quarterback, or would his game strictly be contingent upon speed, elasticity around the corner, and a few pass-rushing moves? Well, before the 2020 season Burns told the media he'd added 15 pounds to his frame. And how he's had another full offseason in the Panthers' strength and conditioning program. There's no doubting he's NFL strong.
Mack entered the league more NFL-ready than Burns. At 6-3 and 251 pounds at the 2014 combine, the University at Buffalo legend had a more compact, body-builder type frame, which gave him an early edge in the power department. Burns has now come close to filling out his nearly 6-5 frame, which will allow him to add another pass-rushing weapon to his arsenal.
Last year, Burns trailed only T.J. Watt, Jerry Hughes, and Myles Garrett in pass-rush win rate, according to ESPN Analytics, indicating more pressures and more sacks are imminent. Brandon Thorn of TrenchWarfare.com places sacks into different categories based on the degree of difficulty of each one -- "rare high quality, high quality, low quality, coverage, and cleanup."
Burns finished with three high-quality sacks, four low-quality sacks, and one cleanup sack, for a "sack score" of seven. He was the only member of the top 28 edge rushers on Thorn's sack score list under the age of 23.
Also like Mack, Burns went from one forced fumble as a rookie, then registered multiple strip sacks in his second season. Mack had two in 2015. Burns had three last year.
Burns also upped his tackle total in Year 2. He had 25 tackles with five tackles for loss as a rookie and 58 tackles with eight behind the line of scrimmage in 2020, another shred of evidence he's becoming a more powerful and complete edge rusher.
Now, the Panthers probably aren't ready to make the leap the Raiders did in 2016, going from 7-9 the prior year to a playoff-earning 12-4. And it's difficult to win NFL Defensive Player of the Year on a sub-.500 team. But Burns' first two seasons in the NFL look much like Mack's, and the former first-round pick has the pass-rushing toolbox to have a Mack-like impact in his third season, the year Mack went from burgeoning young stud to superstar on the edge.